I’m told that approximately 40% of the AILA membership has been practicing immigration law less than 5 years.  Some are newly minted attorneys, others are committed to a career change or perhaps testing the proverbial waters.  Regardless of their motives, if they are serious, joining AILA was their best possible career decision.  Today’s AILA provides immigration attorneys a wealth, on occasion it might even seem an overwhelming abundance, of resources.  While AILA membership is the sine qua non for any successful immigration practitioner, AILA’s Annual Conference on Immigration Law remains the single most important event an immigration attorney can attend to build and hone a successful practice.

Objectively the benefits—world-class, cutting-edge continuing legal education, law office management tools, ethics, hands-on interface with exhibitors, networking and more (much more)–FAR outweigh the costs.   In this harsh immigration climate we have to perfect our “A game.”  To this end the Annual Conference is the place to be. Oh yeah, and it’s in San Francisco, which isn’t too shabby, either.

I decided to attend my first Annual Conference a “few years” back and it was one of the best decisions of my professional life.  It happened like this:

Elizabeth Gervais-Gruen was a seasoned municipal attorney and pioneering feminist well before her first involvement with immigration law – providing pro bono assistance to World War II era refugees.  In the 1950s, while a member of our New York Chapter, she maintained a consular-oriented immigration practice at posts throughout Europe.

In 1976, at 63, she moved to Chapel Hill with her new husband. The college community, to which the couple had no business or personal ties, was selected because it was neutral ground and because of its retirement potential.  As to retirement, fate intervened with a vengeance when, in the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened its first North Carolina office in Charlotte.  Soon a handful of attorneys daring or presumptuous enough to handle immigration matters organized what eventually became the Carolinas Chapter of AILA.  In those days North Carolina, like many states, was an immigration backwater.  Most of the founding members of our Chapter aspired to build an immigration practice but it was several years before any of us, other than Elizabeth, attended an AILA Annual Conference.  I was the first, but truth be told, without her nudging I might never have gone to an Annual Conference.  (Concededly, it didn’t hurt that the site was San Juan.)

That was in 1981. Present was Maurice Roberts who after a distinguished career with the INS, headed the BIA; and then for many years “Maury” was not just the editor of Interpreter Releases, he was Interpreter Releases. Soon I button-holed Charles Gordon, the reigning dean of immigration law, who gave me selfless insight into a case I took to the 4th circuit.  During four days I resolved three vexing issues which more than paid the cost of attending and I gained the confidence to finish a manuscript that I was working on.

Also present was AILA leadership—past, present, and future, our unbroken circle,—whose contributions are to this day baked into our collective professional DNA. Needless to say following in Elizabeth’s footsteps, I never missed another Annual Conference.  By the way, she went on to serve as our Chapter Chair and was elected to the national Board of Governors while continuing her immigration practice for almost another three decades.

It became a tradition at every Spring Chapter meeting for “Betty” to recall my first Annual Conference and quote me as saying, “Mrs. Gervais, the conference paid for itself the first day.” She made it plain that she felt that failure to attend was little short of malpractice per se.  She practiced what she preached; with one exception—due to major surgery in her 90s—she attended every annual conference.

At age 96, Elizabeth closed her immigration practice; on her 100th birthday AILA’s Board of Governors passed a unanimous resolution making her an Honorary Member of the association.  She was 102 when she passed away on July 1, 2015. We are still following in her footsteps.

This year those footsteps lead the way to San Francisco, where we can rejoin old friends and make new ones, share knowledge and glean new insights from experts across the entire spectrum of immigration law.  And where we can have some fun, since we’re not robots – we are after all not only professionals, we’re people. This year it feels like that human connection is more important than ever as we fight battles unlike any we’ve ever fought. I’ll see you there.

John (Jack) Pinnix is a past AILA President; San Francisco will be his 37th Annual Conference.